Talking to Alex Jones and Motohide Eshiro, producers of the upcoming Devil May Cry game, DmC, gives you an interesting perspective. On one side is the American producer who helped select Ninja Theory, the Cambridge, England-based developer to take on the Japanese series. On the other side is the Japanese producer, based in Osaka, where all previous installments of the game had been developed, and who was relatively new to working with Western studios -- his prior collaboration being the regrettable Bionic Commando, developed by the now-defunct Grin.
The good news is that the new DmC game is a significant step up fron that title -- fast and responsive as the previous games in the series, but with a new attitude born of its UK breeding. Fans who were once horrified by the change of development teams are now receptive, say the pair, as more journalists have gotten to play the game and report back on its quality.
In this interview, the two talk about how Ninja Theory was selected to develop the game, lessons learned by both of Capcom's offices regarding international collaboration, and precisely how and why the developer was allowed to inject its own sensibility into the franchise while maintaining continuity with a franchise which defined the action game genre for years.
Can you talk about working with Ninja Theory, and how the Japanese side approached the collaboration on a Japanese IP like this?
Motohide Eshiro: Initially, the way the whole thing went down, Capcom U.S.A. initially found Ninja Theory, approached them, and began that relationship. Capcom Japan jumped in right at the beginning of production.
The role of Capcom Japan has been to be the vision-holder and the standard-bearer as far as DmC -- the essential Devil May Cry-ishness; what it is that is the heart or the core concept of Devil May Cry, especially with Itsuno-san, who directed some of the previous Devil May Crys.
He's sort of the been the ambassador, if you will, of getting across what these core concepts are -- what it is we need to maintain for consistency's sake between the previous titles. He's spent a lot of time with Ninja Theory explaining these core concepts and elements, and their creative team worked in what we wanted and put their own spin on it.
The relationship with Ninja Theory started at the U.S. office?
Alex Jones: Yeah.
So how did you find them? I mean, I obviously know their previous work, but how did you say, "This is the one we're going to approach for Devil May Cry"?
AJ: Well, we were familiar with what they had done before, and, in fact, our director of product development at the time had worked with them in a previous version of themselves when he was at Microsoft, and knew of them.
So there was already a semi-personal relationship there, but what really sealed it was the fact that we would look at Heavenly Sword and Enslaved; both of those games contain things that are really important for a DMC game to do well -- narrative, cutscenes, and these sorts of things. Then, they had shown just enough capacity for combat that we felt bringing in a booster shot of some of the CJ [Capcom Japan] experience of 25 years of making fighting games would get it over the hurdle completely.
And given the fact that those guys had a reverence for the previous franchise, or previous installments of the game, they were super receptive, very easy to work with, and took direction very well in that regard. Once we had surveyed the landscape, it kind of was a no-brainer; they were one of the few people that we considered.
When Capcom U.S. came to you and said "We have this developer we'd like to propose," how did you go through the process of seeing whether or not "Okay, this is a fit"?
ME: Basically, it was a pretty simple process. When it was first proposed, we pretty much got on a plane and went out to Cambridge, met with those guys personally, took a look at what their capabilities were, met with their key members, and the rest, as they say, was history. It wasn't what I would describe as a difficult decision, given their pedigree.
In particular, combat's very important to Devil May Cry; Western games with melee combat don't tend to feel very much like Japanese games. I was curious specifically about that, and working with the team to create a game that felt consistent, combat-wise, with the original games in the series.
ME: Once again, it was a really close collaboration, with the Capcom Japan guys consulting with Ninja Theory throughout the process. You do hit on something important when you talk about the differences, generally speaking, between Japanese and Western games, when it comes to the control feel in these types of games.
The main difference, if we were to really simplify things, is it seems that Western games tend to focus a lot on realism in animation, so that, if you're walking along and you stop, you should go through a natural and proper stop animation, which tends to look very good. But, when we're talking about something like Devil May Cry, the concept has always been letting the user do what they want when they want -- cancel things in mid-motion and suddenly turn on a dime, this sort of thing. We had to spend a lot of time getting this concept across, and bringing their way of thinking over to the mind space that we were in, and finding that balance between realism and ease of use.
Turning it around, has anything Ninja Theory wanted to do surprised you and changed your perceptions -- have you ever been like, "Oh! That is a good idea! We should change our thinking about that"?
ME: Yeah, there's lots of things like that.
The first example to come to mind would be the idea that, in previous Devil May Cry games, you were always trapped in a given area and had to kill the enemies before you could move on to the next area. There were those red doors that would pop up, and it was a very video gamey sort of convention.
What Ninja did was come up with the concept of having the world around you actually shift to block you into different areas, and that morphed into the whole Malice system, with the real-time deformation morphing of backgrounds.
It turned from a simple idea -- how do we trap people in an area logically? -- and expanded beyond that to a really cool concept that helps define the world in which the game takes place. That's an idea that they came up with that we hadn't thought of, and perhaps could not have thought of on our own. There's a lot of little examples like that.
Had you previously personally worked with a Western studio on a title?
ME: Yes. I was involved in Bionic Commando, actually.
Is there anything you learned when you were working on Bionic Commando that you were able to take forward, and smooth out things when you were working with Ninja Theory this time?
ME: One important lesson I think we learned was the idea of not forcing our own methodology and our own design sensibilities on the developer but, rather, giving our general concept -- why we think the way we do -- and the sort of results that we're after, communicating that, and letting them find their own solution to the puzzle, so to speak, as opposed to saying, "Hey, do this. Do it exactly like this." Rather than that, saying: "Hey, this is what we're after. This is the problem we're trying to solve for. How would you solve for it? What is your way of tackling that?"
Obviously -- and it seems simple in hindsight now -- that's the much better path to take. That was a lesson we learned. That and, obviously, communication itself -- the importance of that and the frequency of communication becomes a key component in it, as well.
Between Western and Japanese development, there are definitely differences in methodology. Did you have to find new ways to evaluate where the game is at certain points in development? The results -- are they coming along, or are they not coming along?
ME: Yeah, absolutely, and I think if I were to generalize -- and obviously, there are exceptions on both sides -- but if I were to generalize, it seems most Japanese studios will tend to make very gradual, incremental progress in a relatively steady state, whereas, working with a lot of Western developers, what I've noticed is that you get to a certain base level of quality, and the game starts to expand, and then you hit a point where it just takes a huge jump in quality rather than these minor incremental things.
So it can be really difficult to judge how far along the game is when you're looking at a milestone. You do have to be sensitive to that; you do have to squint a little bit here and there because, just once again, the way of doing things is in and of itself different.
A really specific example would be in a Japanese game we might get one level of a game done and just really concentrate on polishing it to a very high degree, so we've got one small portion done to a very high degree, whereas what we see sometimes with Western developers is that they'll have a larger chunk of the game is done but in gray box or blue box, and the whole thing gradually moves along together. As opposed to one area being done-done and another area being done-done. The entire game is done to a degree, and makes gradual steps.
Do you see any advantages in the way that Western developers approach development now that you've had a chance to work on a couple of major projects with them?
ME: One thing that I've noticed, is that it seems like, with a lot of Western developers, it seems more egalitarian, so to speak, in that you have people with knowledge of multiple fields on the teams. Someone could be, for example, a designer, but they might have a degree of programming chops as well, so they can speak to different things, and they can all get together and bounce ideas off each other.
Whereas in Japan, you tend to be much more compartmentalized; if you're a programmer, you're a programmer. You sit with the programmers. You don't talk to the designers so much unless you need to, etcetera. I think we could work on having people with knowledge in multiple fields and in an environment in which they can bounce ideas off one another and communicate. That's certainly a lesson that we could take away from the way Western studios tend to approach things.
Capcom has been very public about the fact that, moving forward, you are going to work with Western developers on properties like this. Do you think that it is working, and do you think that is a good solution? From your perspective, as someone in the trenches working on these games, are you happy with this?
ME: Yeah. It really boils down to the importance of balance. Obviously, trying to get new IPs out whenever possible is still really important, but also the idea of revisiting existing IPs and tackling them from a different angle -- in these cases, Western devs -- is a very good and healthy thing to do. To use a timely example, if you look at Batman, for instance, it's such an established IP. You can look at it from different angles; you can have movies that have different visual motifs and different tones to them. I really like the idea of doing that with our video game IP as well, while simultaneously exploring other avenues and new IPs at the same time.
How much of an approval process was there? How formal was it? When Ninja Theory wanted to do something, for example, with the art direction, for example? Did they have to show you everything or could they say, "Let us mess around with it for awhile and see what we do"?
ME: As with any developer–publisher relationship, there's obviously an approval process: milestones submitted and comments given. We took a really collaborative approach, we'd like to think, with this, where there was a lot of discussion.
We obviously recognize that we're dealing with real professionals here, so we respect their point of view. If we saw something that we thought could be improved upon, we would give advice to achieve the goal that they were after or potentially explore a different way of getting to that goal; but, from early on, we knew we didn't want to just come in and say no to things or reject things if we weren't completely happy with something.
Our position was "Let's find together another way to tackle this issue." I think it very much felt like a collaboration and not like the kind of top-down relationship you ordinarily see in these sorts of situations.
A lot has changed in terms of the generation since Devil May Cry 4 came out. We've been through a lot. Do you think Devil May Cry really had to change as an IP? Is that something where you felt like it was time for it to change?
ME: In any series in any form of entertainment, really, there comes a time when you've done a certain number of sequels when things stabilize, they feel good, but, at the same time, you stop taking risks and doing new things. It definitely did feel like it was time to try something new, to try a new approach.
At the same time, we didn't want to completely scrap everything and make something completely different. Our goal has always been to maintain a level of what it is that's at the core of Devil May Cry -- be it the controls, certain story elements, etcetera -- while at the same time striking out in new territory and trying something new. Timing wise, it felt like "Why not take this and see what we can do when approached from a different angle?"
When the game was announced, there was a lot of complaining from some of the hardcore fans of the series. Did that surprise you, and did that affect you -- or did you have such confidence in your vision going forward that you just said, "They'll see in the end that we made the right decision"?
ME: Honestly, we were not horribly shocked at all. I think we knew whenever you take any sort of iconic character, or iconic series, and mix things up a bit, that you're bound to upset some people and make people nervous and understandably wary. So it wasn't a surprise to us.
At the same time, we were confident in the game we were making, and we knew that if we maintained that vision, that the gameplay itself was so strong and the visuals were so tight and the game itself was so compelling that if we just stuck with it and did what we planned to do from the start, people would eventually come around once they got a controller in their hand. I think, if you look at the way things have evolved since then, I think we made the right decision. People are indeed coming around to understand now that they're dealing with a really good game that fits within the Devil May Cry framework.
Is that a matter of community management, or is that just a matter of more and more people seeing the game and changing their opinion on it?
AJ: The passionate fans really aren't going to be swayed by something like that, what the community manager says; what really mattered really was getting the game in front of people. That probably started at Gamescom here last year, where we first showed some gameplay footage, and it started to turn a little bit. And every time we had a subsequent drop of assets, or opened the game for people to touch, hands-on, then it did start to move opinion.
First, all they had was the black-haired Dante, which to some degree was a lot of change, in addition a new developer, new thoughts, and all of that. We always thought that, as Eshiro-san said, once people started to see the game, starting last year at Gamescom, and we've gone to [Capcom showcase event] Captivate, where we started doing hands-on demonstrations, and people could report back their experiences to the crowd, that it started to turn.
I think what we're seeing now is a far more positive to wait-and-see than the "What the hell?!" and "I'm never getting this game!" And I assume that that will simply continue as there is a demo, and things of that nature.
It really did come down to getting it in their hands. There was no community guy that was going to be able to bewitch the people into buying into it; they were going to need to see it and eventually touch it. And that's ultimately why we had a lot of confidence: we knew that we were making something that was going to be great once you put the controller in their hands.
It's funny: People expect a sort of continuity out of their games. It's hard to satisfy. You see a lot of older franchises that have been around awhile struggling with this. People expect a certain continuity, but they expect it to be as good as the competition that's out right now. I imagine that balance is just really tough.
AJ: Yeah. If you think about it, obviously tone and world and the environment and visuals have changed a great deal, but if you're talking about combat, the iconic elements of the franchise are there: you've got Ebony and Ivory serving relatively the same function as they did in previous DMCs; you've got the rebellion; there are some moves that are very similar to previous DMCs; there's story continuity with Vergil.
We were very mindful of knowing that, while we wanted to revamp a bunch of stuff and hopefully update it in line with a more contemporary taste, you can't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
There was obviously a ton that got Devil May Cry have four instantiations of itself before we got on the scene, and I'd like to think we struck a pretty good balance between those two. That'll largely be in the fans' hands, but I think now that they've seen that the gameplay is going to be fine, that everything else will fall into place.
Did you require the people at Ninja Theory to play the first four games and fully understand them, and did you provide them with any sort of bible or design documents of previous games? Did you say, "I want you to have a basic understanding of what Devil May Cry is"? How did you strike that balance?
ME: We were lucky in the sense that we didn't really need to issue any order like that, because the guys already had a great deal of respect for the series and had played all of the games before and didn't need to be asked to -- especially 3 and 4; there seemed to be a great deal of Devil May Cry 3 and 4 fans and analysts, so to speak, on the Ninja side, so we didn't really share any documentation or specifically ask them to play those games.
We concentrated our feedback and our information-sharing on more of the abstract concepts -- more of what is the essence and the core of the series -- and then allowed those guys to put their own spin on things and have their own take on it.
We talked a little bit about how you're collaborating more with Western studios, but -- and this is for both of you, basically from your own perspectives -- are you collaborating more with your U.S. office as well? It's not just "They take the games we make, or have made, and publish them in the U.S."? Is it more getting their perspective on the audience in that market, and that kind of stuff?
ME: We feel on the Japan side that we obviously have a lot of experience in the Japanese market and creating and marketing games specifically for that audience, but, yeah, absolutely. We use the capacity of our Western branches to explore other avenues as well as kind of a multi-strategy approach. We've still got our stuff going there; we're working more closely with Capcom USA and other branches to find new ways, new avenues, and new methods of doing things at the same time.
AJ: Yeah, in a lot of ways, having us to source the actual dev team for this game, wanting to make it more Western-facing. I can only speak from my own experience; it tends to be very siloed on the publishing side, so it's basically down to who's working with whom, but, as far as this project's gone, yeah, it's been fairly collaborative in nature. I've had insight and made good suggestions into what we should do, and these guys have been listening; they work with our marketing team.
Yeah, normally we've done stuff separately, so this is actually maybe one of the first test cases in working together this closely on one particular project, and it was the first one of that nature, so we're still in the figuring-it-out mode, but this was a pretty successful maiden voyage for this whole deal, so I'm pretty happy with it.
Devil May Cry is still a popular IP in Japan. Are you expecting the Japanese audience to accept the new direction? We talked about how the Western audience has come around, but have you seen how your domestic audience -- which is now the overseas audience for this game -- feels?
ME: It's actually quite similar to what we saw happen in the West. First there was some nervousness and unease about the new direction, but, much like in other territories, with the more gameplay videos that we showed and the more information that we released, people started to sway over into positive territory.
What it's looking like right now is not only are we doing a good job of winning back Devil May Cry fans because it is, of course, a big IP there, but we're also getting a lot of interest from action fans who aren't even necessarily Devil May Cry players. So we're in a pretty good place in the Japanese market now. Once again, much like the West, the more we show and the more we talk about it, the better the reaction has been getting.